North Liberty Community Pantry Garden fosters health, community


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Garden and Volunteer Coordinator Ilsa Dewald working with youth volunteers in the North Liberty Community Pantry Growing Together Garden. (Steven Williams/Special Projects and Marketing Coordinator)
Jenna Ladd | August 16, 2016

The North Liberty Community Pantry has come a long way since its first days serving families from a First Methodist Church closet.

While the pantry is still an outreach ministry of the North Liberty church, its facilities are hardly comparable to the organization’s modest beginnings in 1985. The pantry is now housed in a modern building that features a client-choice shopping model. The building also features refrigerated and frozen food capacities, which is all part of the pantry’s mission to offer clients equal access to wholesome foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy. Executive Director Kaila Rome explains, “Everyone deserves to have the option of healthy nutrition choices, along with the access to knowledge and resources to implement healthy eating.”

Two years ago the pantry expanded that effort through the establishment of the North Liberty Community Pantry Growing Together Garden. The pantry received a Gardening for Health grant through the Wellmark Foundation’s initiative to provide healthier options to people experiencing food insecurity. The grant was matched by North Liberty community donations and provided funds for a paid garden coordinator, necessary equipment, and installation. The 9,600 sq. ft. garden is situated just west of the pantry and provided just over 800 pounds of organically grown produce for pantry goers last year.

When produce from the garden hits the pantry shelves, it is often accompanied by cooking instructions and other foods that pair well with it. “We’re still small enough where we get personal interaction with almost every family, or at least we try to, where we can ask them, ‘Hey, have you tried this recipe?’ What worked and what didn’t, people will bounce ideas off of each other so it’s been really great to see that just from having fresh produce. It’s just one of those things that you don’t think can bring people together, but I think it has,” said Rome.

Garden and Volunteer Coordinator Ilsa Dewald also provides more pointed skill-building through the organization of salsa and canning classes for families. Both community members and pantry families attend classes, encouraging cohesion among North Liberty residents. Rome added, “There’s just a big co-mingling of individuals from people who have used our services, maybe need to use our services in the future to people who just stop by the pantry to pick up their CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] share.”

In combination with donations from local farmers, the pantry is able to provide about three pounds of produce to clients per pantry visit. Rome said, “Just because someone is in need doesn’t mean that their needs change, they still need vegetables, they still need produce, they still need meat and dairy items…We’re not just handing out cans of beans and canned soup, but it’s more than that. It’s about giving back, even if you’re receiving services here, people will volunteer in the garden and it really helps them feel like they are able to contribute.”

The Growing Together Garden does more than provide families with the health benefits associated with eating more vegetables and fruits. It also provides a model of a local food system that is not only reserved for those with an abundance of resources such as arable land, start up money, and leisure time, all while curbing greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional food systems. The garden’s food equity work is echoed by fellow non-profit group Grow: Johnson County, which was recently leased two acres of county land by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to combat food insecurity and promote health through a garden education program. The organization grows vegetables exclusively for hunger-relief programs like Table to Table and The Crisis Center and provides garden education to disadvantaged populations. Grow: Johnson County’s Education Director Scott Koepke commented on the North Liberty Garden Project during its infancy, “This is not your typical garden. This is designed to be sustainable for years to come, and large enough to provide food for hundreds of people.”

With home and community gardens on the rise, up 200% since 2008, it seems projects like these will only continue to pick up steam; which, according to Koepke is a good thing, “Food insecurity isn’t going away anytime soon.”

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